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The Gentrification of Black Film

Shadow and Act By Tanya Steele | Shadow and Act August 4, 2014 at 2:06PM

There is a lot to be said about James Brown. As with many a genius, particularly male, there is the upside to the breadth and depth in his musicianship.
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From left, Chadwick Boseman as James Brown and director Tate Taylor on the set of 'Get on Up.' Universal Pictures
From left, Chadwick Boseman as James Brown and director Tate Taylor on the set of 'Get on Up.' Universal Pictures

I refuse to see a film on the life of James Brown that is directed by the man who directed ‘The Help’. Yes, it is my loss. I accept that loss. I am sure Chadwick Boseman and the rest of the cast did an outstanding job. But, at some point, I have to register my disgust with the need for “Hollywood” to situate itself in the lives of Black Americans without giving a Black Director the opportunity to tell the story.

There is a lot to be said about James Brown. As with many a genius, particularly male, there is the upside to the breadth and depth in his musicianship. And, there is also a downside to his treatment of women. The many iterations of James Brown have graced all of our lives. If you are a human being on the planet and you have not heard James Brown, you are not listening to music. Granted, you could be listening to something but, it isn’t music.

Regular readers know, I am not known to sing the praises of any one unless they move me. I am critical to a fault. Like Kanye West’s brilliant song ‘Runaway’, “I’m so gifted at finding what I don’t like the most”, that’s me. But, I will say, I know Black filmmakers, some not-so talented, some talented and some talented as f**k who could smash a James Brown biopic.

Black Genius is real. Did you see the lines at Kara Walker’s ‘The Subtlety’? Where the Mammy Sphinx had her ass and p***y perched so that you could lick, smell or, as many did, deride it. The Mammy Sphinx was erected, in Brooklyn, during a hotbed of visual transition in the borough. Neighborhoods, formerly populated by Brown skin are now being overrun with White skin. Similar to one of the points Ms. Walker wanted to illustrate with her Mammy Sphinx, American sugar went through a refining process to turn sugar from its natural state of brown to white. Seemingly, a very complicated process. Imagine the conversations that arose around turning the sugar from brown to white. As Kara Walker states in her New York Times interview: “...it takes a lot of energy to turn brown things into white things. A lot of pressure…”  

Now, I am not claiming that “Hollywood” is interested in turning brown things to white. However, I do believe that “Hollywood” would like to make images that are digestible for a larger audience. The Director who can deliver the broadest brush strokes gets the gig. The Director who is able to distill images to their least effective state- takes the reigns. One can know a Director based on their aesthetic, how they deliver a movie to you. Similar to painters, if placed in a room with a painting by Picasso or Basquiat, one could tell the difference. Similarly, with Spielberg or Scorsese or Lee or Malick, we can know the filmmaker by the atmosphere, the visual, the music, these Directors have a very specific thumbprint. This is why we love them.

Unfortunately, as “Hollywood” drifts more toward a business model and less toward an artistic model, the thumbprint, the special vision offered by Directors that we love, and that we love to discover, are falling by the wayside. Watching trailer previews is like watching a string of films by one bland Director. The stories are trite, deliver tropes, laugh cues, explosions, a common and unsophisticated language to satisfy an audience member, whether they live in Idaho or Baltimore. Movies are becoming two hours of redundant, uncomplicated, poorly-scripted, box office whores. What my nieces understand cinema to be, is way different than what I understand cinema to be.

Cinema was an experience. It was an experience that welcomed you into the lives of others. It was an experience that introduced you to foreign lands or to your neighbors or to ideas and themes that encouraged you to challenge who you are and what your place is in the culture. Today, movies are marketed and sold to you before you purchase a ticket. The specific vision of the Director, the unique way that the Director sees the world, is no longer important.

And, “Independent”cinema is not off of the hook. Sundance mastered the “dysfunctional family” aesthetic. White film after White film fought to deliver the most dysfunctional and least ideas laden film possible. Films used to transport us with visuals, with words, with ideas. “Rachel Getting Married”, for me, was one film, in a number of films, that paraded White dysfunction with some Blackness thrown in for spice. I soon lost interest in American independent cinema. There was a lack of diversity in vision, in aesthetic, in themes. I turn to cinema from Africa, or Europe or Asia to sate my film cravings.

Which brings me to James Brown. The trailer for James Brown delivered a series of tropes. Tropes that are supposed to relay that this is Blackness, that this is going to give you what you expect- a soulful, tearful, good time. I got it. I don’t need to see more. I have a collection of James Brown’s music. There are few things that will deliver the genius, funk menagerie that was James Brown. Trust me, someone who could construct ‘The Help’ does not have the gravitas to handle the life of James Brown. Certainly, he may deliver the trappings but the spirit of James Brown... nope.

When asked to Direct ‘Beloved’, Jane Campion said that she didn’t know enough about Black culture, about the life of “Beloved” to take the reigns. I respect that. And, I’m hoping, in these years, Jane Campion has caught up on Black culture as I would love to see her direct a diverse cast. But, I respect her reluctance. She articulated something very important. She let us know that there is more to filmmaking than one’s ability to toss images on a screen. A life has to inform the work. One has to be connected to the experience of the subject. Directing is about distilling the content and delivering the heart of the subject to an audience. Unfortunately, the desire to do that is fading.

This is not about turning Black people White. Hollywood gentrification is about making everything look, taste, sound and feel the same. My Brooklyn neighborhood, once lovely and unique because of all of the differing personalities and cultures, is soon becoming something that I’ve seen before. It has less funk. There are bicycle racks, and couples with strollers, hipsters jogging in beards and sunglasses. It’s going from Brown to White right before my eyes. There is always some good in that. More resources pour in, better products but, the soul, the spirit of the neighborhood is gone. My neighborhood has been refined. I refuse to buy a ticket to the refining of James Brown.


Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SteeleInk. Or visit digtanya.com.


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